There’s little Donald Trump likes better than sticking a thumb in the eye of someone who he thinks has wronged him. And he can get pretty creative when he puts his mind to it, as Fox News is now finding out.
Over a well-documented dispute about the moderators of tonight’s Republican presidential debate, Trump has announced that he will boycott the clash of Oval Office hopefuls taking place in Des Moines, Iowa, at 9 p.m. tonight. This, by itself, was a blow to Fox News. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Donald Trump makes for good television, and his presence in the six previous debates has turned them into a ratings and advertising bonanza for the host networks.
Trump will likely do real financial damage to Fox just by refusing to show up. When TV networks sell advertisements, they do it with a guarantee that the ad will reach a minimum number of viewers. If Trump’s disappearance from the debate line-up damages ratings, as it almost certainly will, Fox will be on the hook for “make-goods” – meaning that they will have to re-run advertisements for free in order to deliver the promised audience.
But Trump didn’t stop there. Late Wednesday he officially announced that he will host a “Special Event for Veterans” on Thursday in Des Moines, across town from the Republican debate on the campus of Drake University. The “pre-program” starts at 8 p.m., with the “main event” kicking off, unsurprisingly, at 9 p.m., just as the GOP debate is supposed to begin.
In effect, the biggest television draw of either party’s presidential primary is offering free counter-programming to any of the other cable news networks – and even the broadcast networks, if they are interested – that were likely to lose viewers to Fox News tonight.
The extent to which Trump’s competing event will be covered is unclear. A rumor that CNN would “host” the event made the rounds in the right wing social media sphere Wednesday night, driven in large part by a Tweet from Trump supporter and conservative media personality Ann Coulter. However, as of late Wednesday, no such arrangement had been confirmed by CNN.
However, it’s a virtual certainty that Trump’s event will get significant coverage, and that makes the decision to boycott the Fox News debate a trifecta for Trump. He gets even more free television coverage, and in getting it he hurts Fox News by draining an even larger number of viewers from the debate than he would have by simply not turning up. Additionally, he hurts his Republican opponents, by creating another news event in a cycle that, barring anything unforeseen, would otherwise have been dominated by the Republican debate.
And it may get even better for the billionaire former reality television star, because yet another wildcard was thrown into the mix Wednesday, with the suggestion that some of the Republican contenders relegated to the “undercard” debate in Des Moines might head across town and turn up at the Trump event after they finish.
None of the undercard participants -- former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore -- commands more than a tiny, single-digit portion of the vote in Iowa or nationally. But with the polling ahead of the Iowa caucuses that kick off early presidential voting Monday indicating a close race, even small advantages might turn out to be significant.